Dangerous Women

 Courtesy of San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum Courtesy of San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum

Dangerous Women, Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming, by Victoria Cass came out in 1999, but I just finished reading it.  It doesn't have a lot of information about martial arts during the Ming Dynasty but it does a great job of describing what life was like.  I highly recommend it.

Cass divides the Ming Dynasty into three realms of action.

The first was the fanatical cult of the family.  40,000 suicidal mothers were officially recognized as martyr goddesses by the Ming governments (1350-1650).  Conforming to this cult was a way for women to gain power.  I love that she takes the subject most often referred to as "ancestor worship" under a "Confucian" doctrine--and labels it fanatical.

The second realm was Urbanity.  China under the Ming Dynasty was the wealthiest country in the world and it had a lavish vibrant urban culture, particularly in the south east.  The so called "Education District," was the center of theater and art in every city.  Female artists and entertainers of every imaginable sort were not only able to make a living, some got wealthy enough to retire to a country garden with a couple of servants.

The third realm was Solitude.  There was the option of being an eccentric outsider.  On the one hand there were female bandit leaders who lived in mountain strongholds, Daoist hermits, and hairy recluses who ate only insects.  And on the other hand there was an idealized worship of solitude which found expression in private urban retreats, islands of tranquility with perfect artistic wives (Cass uses the Japanese term geisha, the Chinese term is ji, an artist) in grass huts and rock gardens with poetry and exquisite incense.  There was a whole milieu of artistically inclined people who competed to see who could be the most reclusive with out leaving the city.  Eccentric hermits could tour the urban scene as guests of the well-to-do.

From her description of the three realms, Cass sets off to describe the different types of lives women made from themselves with in those three realms.  I was surprised by how common female doctors were.  There were also thousands of female spiritual leaders and teachers of every sort.  Women could be painters, writers, and actors.  There was only one female general, but women were often referred to as "Warrior types."  These warrior women for instance would dress up in beautiful armor and tour around the city doing martial performances on horseback.  She points out that some of these women were just artists and some were known for sexual prowess.  Most no doubt started from desperate circumstances, but Cass points out that most women artists in America have sex with multiple partners too.

The section on Grannies is great too.  Older women had hundreds of ways of making independent income; as fortune tellers, as nannies, as sales reps, dealers, matchmaking, connecting people, organizing, curing illness, consoling.  They were uniquely  un-threatening experts in many realms, especially dark realms, and they had the ability to get intimately close to the workings of everything. Ironically, for this they were also feared! and blamed!  The a-moral, strategic, sexual, articulate, trickster granny was among the most popular of literary heroes.

Hey!  It's a google book, you can search the whole thing!